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April 3rd, 2009 04:48

Behind a Bizarre Tale of Sultans and Mermaids

Behind a Bizarre Tale of Sultans and Mermaids

Yogyakarta- Sitting in the dining room of Hotel Ciputra, West Jakarta, wearing a batik shirt and a friendly smile, a bespectacled Paul Sochaczewski seems more of an intellectual tourist than the intrepid adventurer that he actually is.

 “Strange things are what make life interesting,” Sochaczewski said, as he dug into his lunch, fresh off a flight from Bangkok, where he resides.

 “I find it fascinating when you don’t understand what’s going on, that things happen on different levels. You peel it away like an artichoke, and you see something unexpected.”

In his book, “The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen,” peeling away the layers of the bizarre, unknown and mystifying is what Sochaczewski does best.

The anthology features 62 stories, a number of which have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, CNN Traveler and DestinAsian.

Deftly, Sochaczewski weaves fact and fiction from experiences of his colourful sojourn around the world. He takes the reader from Brazil to Bhutan with tales written in a straightforward but humorous style.

It was during the time of the Vietnam War that Sochaczewski first arrived in the jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia, as a Peace Corps volunteer. He said that as a 22-year-old, he did not know what to expect.

 “I was a kid from New Jersey going to Borneo. I had no international exposure. I didn’t know if I should be bringing little mirrors to trade,” he said with a laugh. “It changed my life.”

Since then, Sochaczewski has worked with the World Wildlife Fund International and has been privy to many corners of the world.

While living among locals in Sarawak as a teacher trainer for the Peace Corps, Sochaczewski spent many of his days in the forest observing the intricacies of rural life — learning how to obtain medicinal plants and to hunt, and how the rice cycles of the hills functioned. Out of these forests, a love for nature conservation blossomed.

In his book, he touches upon two issues very close to his heart: ecology and golf. There are stories about Filipino fishermen’s attempts to protect coral reefs, a piece on how golfing can alleviate stress in Iran and adventures such as seeking hobbits in Flores.

The title of the book refers to the love affair between the sultans of Java and the mermaid Ratu (Queen) Ajeng Kidul.

Sochaczewski ventured to Solo, Central Java Province, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mermaid queen, who was believed to appear annually during a sacred dance in honor of her love for the Sultan.

But he said he remained skeptical of the beliefs strongly held by the indigenous people he has encountered.

 “You don’t know what is reality. What’s the shadow, what’s the real? It’s a wayang [puppet]. People choose to believe in different things at different times and believing things that work for them,” he said.

His work often takes him to some of the remotest areas of the globe, where communication is not easy as people speak in local dialects, and then there’s the lack of shared cultural references.

 “If we go into a village, there’s no commonality. So our questions are going to be superficial and maybe not even the right questions because we are not necessarily looking for facts. We are looking for interpretations,” he said.

Because he is only skimming the surface of his narratives, Sochaczewski admitted that his tales tended to be open-ended, like French nouveau-vague films.

Being curious and restless by nature, Sochaczewski’s time with his subjects is often brief, he said.

But the experiences are still unforgettable for those involved.

 “I am the strange guy who parachutes in, this strange bule [Westerner] who came and asked all these funny questions.” Titania Veda

Source: TheJakartaGlobe.com (March 30th, 2009)


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